Shakespeare Visits the Mecca
In 1909, Ernest Everett Just, a newly hired and promising young biologist and English instructor, launched a student theatrical group known as the Howard College Dramatic Club, later to be renamed the Howard Players. After Professor Just reluctantly migrated to the Biology Department, the club continued to flourish under the leadership of equally devoted English professors/instructors like Benjamin Brawley and Thomas Montgomery Gregory. The Dramatic Club’s stated agendas were: “to firmly and permanently establish the dramatic work among the students of the University” and “to present each year one of the classic plays of some well known playwright of established fame.” Howard students, faculty directors and guest artists mounted two fairly “successful” Shakespearean productions, Merry Wives of Windsor in 1911 and Merchant of Venice in 1915, and contributed to a surprisingly vibrant community of black Shakespeare enthusiasts in Washington, D.C.
My research project examines the cultural and educational roles performed by Shakespeare in Howard’s rapidly changing College of Liberal Arts and on the broader university campus. I am especially interested in assessing the Bard’s curricular and extra-curricular impact from four distinct perspectives: the somewhat embattled yet committed faculty advisors, namely Ernest Just, Ben Brawley and Thomas Gregory; the amateur actors/students devoted to the club and its mission; the general undergraduate student population, especially the Howard University Journal which publicized the club’s efforts and published an on-going debate over “classical studies” on a Negro campus; and finally the national debate over Negro education, as famously framed by W.E.B. DuBois’ liberal arts advocacy versus Booker T. Washington’s industrial/agricultural agenda.
Thus far my research at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center has isolated two critical questions relative to Shakespeare and classical studies. First, how might course work in the “classics,” broadly defined to include Shakespeare, enhance the secondary and post-secondary education of American Negroes? Professors Just and Brawley strategically used the study of Shakespeare and the Dramatic Club’s extra-curricular, classical performances to strengthen the College of Liberal Arts and to generate campus-wide respect for dramatic arts. The second question dominating Howard’s intellectual life: Do art and culture implicitly equal “universal” European masters like Shakespeare, or are there more appropriate liberal arts models for Negroes to pursue or cultivate? Professor Thomas Gregory aggressively answered this “culture” question by using the classical successes of the Dramatic Club to launch a national Negro theater “revolution” that would move Shakespeare to the margins of extracurricular dramatic activity on Howard’s campus.